When Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wax wings melted and he fell in the sea and drowned. That’s a bad result, but things are far worse for objects in space that get really close to the sun. This week, an insane landscape of jets full of steam and dust erupted from the surface of comet 67P as it zoomed past Sol Thursday morning. And, lucky for us, the European Space Administration’s Rosetta satellite was there to capture the whole thing.
At 116 million miles from the surface of the sun, the ball of ice and rock made it closest approach to the sun as it began its return journey into the far reaches of the solar system. Rosetta managed to take a few pictures just hours before the comet boomeranged around the sun, including one of a fierce, kilometers-long stream of material.
Most of the data Rosetta has gathered since landing on 67P a year ago has been a groundbreaking look into the nature of a comet, and Thursday’s data was no exception. “Activity will remain high like this for many weeks, and we’re certainly looking forward to seeing how many more jets and outburst events we catch in the act, as we have already witnessed in the last few weeks,” said Rosetta project scientist Nicolas Altobelli in a statement.
While the ESA will need some time to process and analyze everything, Rosetta’s measurements right now suggest the comet is barfing up more than 660 pounds of water vapor every second — a thousand times more than what it was spewing up this time last year. Average temperatures have shot up from -70 degrees Celsius last year to a few tens of degrees above zero. The comet is also shedding more than 2,200 pounds of dust every second, and it’s forced the ESA to move the spacecraft further away from the comet.
As things temper down, Rosetta will probably be moved closer to the comet again to see how much the impact of the sun has transformed the comet’s structure and movements. Rosetta will keep up with 67P until September 2016, when the comet makes its way past Jupiter and the ESA plans to crash-land the spacecraft into the furious rock.